- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 11, 2009

VLADIVOSTOK, RUSSIA (AP) - About 300 protesters rallied Saturday in Russia’s main far eastern port to protest the Kremlin’s plan to radically streamline the nation’s military.

It was one of the first public demonstrations against the reform plan, which was announced last autumn and is now being implemented. The most sweeping overhaul of Russia’s armed forces in more than a generation envisages the dismissal of six out of every 10 officers, disbanding nine out of every 10 army units, and abolishing a bulky Soviet-era structure focused on divisions and regiments in favor of smaller brigades.

While most observers agree that efforts to streamline the military’s bloated and inefficient structure have been long overdue, critics say the reform looks hasty and ill-considered.

The rally in Vladivostok was organized by the regional Union of Officers, which mostly consists of military retirees. Its participants harshly criticized the planned military reform, which envisages a massive dismissal of military officers and a sweeping reduction of the number of military units.

Some held placards calling for the ouster of Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov. The rally was being held in Vladivostok, the main base of Russia’s Pacific Fleet.

The head of Vladivostok’s Union of Officers, retired Capt. Dmitry Tyulenev, told the rally that the reform amounted to the “deliberate destruction of the military.”

The Kremlin has pledged that the officers to be discharged will be given state apartments and all due social benefits, but many are distrustful of the authorities, who have been reluctant to fulfill their obligations in the past. Many officers also fear that it would be hard for them to find civilian jobs at a time when Russia is struggling with its worst financial crisis in a decade and unemployment is growing.

The Defense Ministry had kept details of the plan private and even issued a directive last fall banning officers from talking about the reform, but the lack of openness deepened officers’ concerns and fueled protests.

Earlier this year, officers of a military intelligence brigade in the Siberian city of Berdsk and their relatives protested plans to disband the unit, which is one of the military’s most combat worthy. The rally drew angry inquiries even in the Kremlin-controlled parliament, and the chief of the military’s general staff, Nikolai Makarov, made quick assurances that the brigade will simply be moving to another city.

In another signal of a growing discontent in the military, officers from the Irkutsk air force academy in Siberia protested the plan to disband it, prompting the defense minister to rush to the site, the weekly Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye said.

Several retired generals have publicly warned that the reforms are destroying Russia’s military capability and suggested the Kremlin could face open revolt.

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AP writer Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report from Moscow.

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